Study Guide

American Beauty Mortality and Time

Mortality and Time

LESTER: My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This is my life. I'm forty-two years old. In less than a year, I'll be dead.

Yup, this is how we begin the movie—we already know the main character is going to die. Cheerful.

RICKY: I was filming this dead bird.

ANGELA: Why?

RICKY: Because it's beautiful.

Ricky turns out to be very sweet, but some of these early moments make us think he's a bit strange. Here, Jane discovers him filming a dead bird—and, naturally, asks why in the world he would do such a thing. As Ricky later goes on to explain (in Quote #4), he believes you can see God in the eyes of the dead. Well, when you put it that way…

RICKY: Have you ever known anybody who died?

JANE: No. Have you?

RICKY: No, but I did see this homeless woman who froze to death once. Just laying there on the sidewalk. She looked really sad. I got that homeless woman on videotape.

Apparently, Ricky's filming has gone way beyond filming dead birds, as he reveals here.

RICKY: When you see something like that, it's like God is looking right at you, just for a second. And if you're careful, you can look right back.

See, here's that explanation we mentioned: Ricky's not morbid; he just thinks that looking mortality head-on is meaningful and maybe even gives you some kind of spiritual access. We'll take his word for it, since we're pretty sure there are ethical problems with filming the dead in that kind of situation.

RICKY: It was one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing. And there's this electricity in the air. You can almost hear it, right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That's the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid. Ever.

And here's where we really start to like Ricky Fitts, who is so sensitive and hopeful about finding meaning in life that he manages to see significance in a plastic bag skipping around on the air. Would most of us find it hard to see evidence of a benevolent force in flying trash? Absolutely—but that's not Ricky. He desperately wants to see the world underneath appearances, and these quiet, mundane moments (and the filming of dead people and animals, of course) seem to get him there.

LESTER: This isn't life. This is just stuff. And it's become more important to you than living. Well, honey, that's just nuts.

As Lester kind of says early in the movie, you can actually be more or less "dead"—at least in terms of your feelings—and still be walking around. That's how he felt until Angela aroused his passions, and here he's trying to get Carolyn to see that she, too, is in a kind of zombie state. Because she's so focused on "stuff" as opposed passion, Lester thinks she's not actually living her life.

RICKY: When I was fifteen, my dad caught me smoking dope. He totally freaked and decided to send me to military school. I told you his whole thing about structure and discipline, right? Well, of course, I got kicked out. Dad and I had this huge fight, he hit me, and the next day at school, some kid made a crack about my haircut, and I just snapped. I wanted to kill him. I would have killed him if they hadn't pulled me off. That's when my dad put me in the hospital. Then they drugged me up and left me in there for two years.

Here, we learn that Ricky does have a bit of a violent side, since he almost killed a kid for making fun of his haircut. This is just one more hint that he might be a little bit dangerous—you know, to leave open the possibility that he just might be capable of killing Lester under the right circumstances.

RICKY: Want me to kill him for you?

JANE: Yeah. Would you?

This exchange begins the movie and repeats later, when we get to see the larger context of the conversation (in which Jane says she's kidding). But still: creepy.

LESTER: Remember those posters that said, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life"? Well, that's true of every day except one: the day you die.

Voiceover Lester is kind enough to give us a heads-up when we reach the day of his demise.

LESTER: I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn't a second at all—it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time.

Lester gives us an overview of what went through his head at the moment of his death. The series of images he sees shows us that his thoughts were primarily with family and the good times that he had with them. Kind of heartwarming that his mind went to them, especially after spending the entire film hyper-fixated on sleeping with a teenager. Guess death really does make you confront what really matters, at least in American Beauty's universe.

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